Chasing a Great Black-backed Gull

The Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull (family Laridae).  It breeds along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S., but is uncommon to rare inland.  In the mid-winter of 2015, Arkansas got its first state record of a Great Black-backed Gull near the Lake Dardanelle dam on the AR River.  The river is the county boundary between Pope and Yell Counties.  The bird was first reported by excellent birders/state-record machines, Kenny and LaDonna Nichols. In January of 2015, I followed the central AR chapter of the Audubon Society on their monthly field trip to try and chase this bird.  We started on the Russellville side of the river (Pope Co.) but could only find gobs of Ring-billed Gulls and a Lesser Black-backed Gull (which is a rare but seemingly annual sight in this area).  The birders spread out and there were scattered reports throughout the day of the bird making a fly-by from the Dardanelle side of the river (Yell Co.).  I made a couple trips back to this site but to no avail.  A friend and I wandered off to a nearby hotspot, Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge to spend the rest of the day.  I went back the next day, as it had been reported in the morning, but found nothing but Ring-billeds.  After that, I gave up on seeing this first state record.

Fast forward 2-3/4 years, to late September and early October of 2017.  Kenny Nichols finds another, 1st-winter Great Black-backed Gull near the same dam.  Busy at work in the southwest part of the state, I chalked this bird up to another rarity that I wouldn’t get the chance to chase.  However, a week later, the bird is still present.  I email Kenny to get an idea of how mobile the bird is and how much of a chance there is that the bird will stay there for a few more days, until I can make my way up to northwest AR.  Kenny keeps diligent watch of the bird and submits reports regularly, as AR birders find time to chase it and submit their own records.  Finally, on Monday, October 9th, I drive up to Russellville.  I make my first stop from the Russellville side.  I can immediately see that the island/sand bar this bird favored has been covered.  Large amounts of rain in Oklahoma had raised the levels of the AR River, so water had been released and covered up the island.  You could tell where the sand bar was, for Great Blue Herons and American White Pelicans were standing in the shallow water.  However, it was too deep for our large gull.  A little anxious, I drove over to the Dardanelle side.  Once at the Dardanelle side, I made my way onto the beach and set up my scope to scan a mass of birds on the shore.  Sifting through American White Pelicans and Great Egrets, I made my way to the gulls.  Most of the gulls were recently arrived Ring-billeds, but among them was a giant.  This gull would have made two Ring-billeds, it seemed.  It had dark wings and a lighter colored head.  It had a low, sloping forehead leading to a thick, black bill.  Its legs, slightly visible, were a fleshy pink.  All signs pointed to the Great Black-backed Gull.  After watching it for a few minutes, and alerting my ornithology professor to its presence, the giant took flight.  My professor and I watched it forage near the dam.  We saw the dark primaries and the contrast of color from coverts/flight feather to neck and head.  After catching a fish and subsequently devouring it, the gull landed at its same spot on the beach and began to preen.  We marveled at this magnificent creature and then we left it to tower over the Ring-billeds.

I don’t get out to chase records much anymore, but for this I had to make an exception.  A majestic and wonderfully cooperative bird made for a thrilling outing.

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Great Black-backed Gull 1st-winter (center) with Ring-billed Gulls

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